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What's the difference between oblige and obligate?

Speculating, is the latter an Americanism of the British former? Or is there any distinction about what/who has caused someone to be oblig(at)ed to do something?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Neither is more correct than the other. They're both common words. In fact, they're sometimes different words. For instance, to oblige someone is to do something for them that they want you to do. "She asked me to pick up dinner, and I obliged her by getting some lasagna from a little Italian place down the street."

That's not the same as obligating someone, which means to make them HAVE to do something (or feel that they have to). "Although the statue was meant as a birthday gift, he obviously felt obligated to get me something expensive in return, despite my protestations."

There is a dialect aspect to it as well. What's wrong with "obligate"? In US English nothing is wrong with it. In Australian English everything is wrong with it. Here's how I'd have put it.

"Although the statue was meant as a birthday gift, he obviously felt obliged to get me something expensive in return, despite my protest."

In my dialect "oblige" is fairly common but "obligate" is never heard. The distinction that Uriel mentions is not made in Australian English. We use "oblige" for both meanings.

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My dialect (modern RP / British English) would treat "obligate" as a foreign (American) and needlessly fussy version of oblige. Even in legal usage (I work as a lawyer) I'd be surprised to see obligate outside a US contract or tract. In the law of obligations we talk about obligors and obligees not obligators and obligatees which would follow the American usage I guess. –  Francis Davey Aug 31 '14 at 9:45
I agree that they mean the same thing, but it seems to me that just as we could either say oriented or orientated we can use obliged or obligated. For some reason though, while "oriented" is more widely used in the U.S., "obliged" is more commonly used in some other English speaking countries. –  Alan Gee Jan 20 at 18:09

To sum it up......... Once obligated, you can't back out without serious repercussions. To say that I'm obliged to do something means that I could live with the consequences of not doing it.

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From a legal point of view, per the argument of the legal scholar H.L.A. Hart, to be obliged is when you must do something under threat of sanction. In other words, you have little choice in the matter. Obligation, on the other hand, is an appeal to authority and morality rather than an appeal to fear or sanction. So you might say, 'The bank teller was obliged to hand over the money under gunpoint'. Similarly, 'The man was obligated to find two witnesses, or his claim would fail under law.'

See the difference? This is a linguistic distinction based on legal arguments, so I'm not sure whether you can extend what I have said to general usage of the words 'obliged' and 'obligated'.

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The verb is to oblige, therefore you are obliged.

The noun is obligation, so you can "have an obligation" and qualify it by adding moral, legal, immutable or whatever. There's no need to invent obligated; it's as crass as saying "disrespecting" instead of being disrespectful.

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No; they're both verbs. Check in a dictionary. ELU is concerned with the facts of English usage, and is not primarily a platform for personal crusades. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 at 20:57

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